To mark International Women’s Day, Gosia Bowling looks at why women are more vulnerable to burnout and suggests how organisations should prevent, and support employees suffering from, unmanageable stress.
A recent study showed that women are more susceptible to burnout than men and another that one in three women have considered downshifting or leaving the workforce due to stress and burnout in the past year.
Why is this so? And what can organisations do to prevent burnout and improve support in the workplace?
Are women really more at risk?
Burnout occurs when you feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and unable to keep up with life’s continual pressures. Although it isn’t medically diagnosed as a condition, being able to recognise it can protect your physical and mental health.
When we’re unable to switch off from ‘fight or flight’ mode, we encounter physical symptoms like tension, sleep disturbance, fatigue, nausea and musculoskeletal issues, as well as mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
It continues to be an increasing issue among women. Whilst there are many possible reasons for this, it is thought that the way societal structures and gender norms interact play a significant role. The pandemic appears to have further exacerbated existing inequalities, both inside and outside of work, leaving women more vulnerable to burnout.
At home, childcare demands escalated during global lockdowns but the challenge was not shared equally. Research suggests women did three times more unpaid childcare and are five times more likely than men to spend at least 20 hours a week on chores.
Burnout doesn’t just negatively affect physical and mental health. Work performance and productivity can suffer, which in turn leads to further stress and, often, overworking. Left unchecked this can lead to presenteeism’ and ‘leavism’.
Training for triggers
Whilst there has been much progress in addressing mental health stigma over recent years, burnt out employees are often hesitant to speak about their situation. Female employees may fear the career consequences of speaking up in relation to work stress, such as being overlooked for promotions. There is an unhelpful and unhealthy perception that you should be able to cope with anything that is thrown at you, no matter how unreasonable or unmanageable those demands are.
These feelings are not without reason; a McKinsey and LeanIn study found, for every 100 men getting their first promotion, just 86 women are promoted.
Businesses have a legal obligation to protect against occupational stress. Furthermore, they are at risk of losing precious female talent unless they are proactive in their approach.
Companies must acknowledge that old workplace practices are no longer relevant. Team leaders should work to prevent burnout. They also need to recognise early warning signs and feel confident approaching individuals and offering support.
Burnout may present itself as an obvious deterioration in work standards, as well as changes in behaviour, like low mood, tiredness, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Managers should focus on creating environments where women feel safe sharing – not just facts, but feelings.
When managers ask how employees are, do they listen and respond with kindness, acting where it is needed? Having open and real conversations goes a long way in showing staff that their wellbeing is genuinely cared about.
This also helps to develop a positive ethos around mental health at work, where conversations are welcome and expected. At Nuffield Health, we’ve offered emotional literacy training to all staff, equipping them with the skills to hold conversations confidently around mental health and giving them a common language to discuss their feelings.
How organisations can help
Your status as an inclusive employer should offer flexibility. Whether it’s part-time hours, set remote working days, strong options for parental leave, or flex-time policies, provide choices employees can take advantage of.
When managers ask how employees are, do they listen and respond with kindness, acting where it is needed?”
Always-on work cultures are bad for health and for productivity. Constant communication is shown to negatively impact mental performance and a recent study shows productivity decreases as the number of hours worked rises and fatigue develops.
Introduce specific policies, so employees don’t feel the need to be ‘always on’. Examples include not answering out-of-hours emails and discouraging employees from sending emails at weekends. Outline clear guidelines on what constitutes as an ‘emergency’ and requires an immediate response. Leaders should model a healthy work culture by acting as positive role models.
Where signs of difficulty are identified, employers should signpost individuals towards the relevant emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include cognitive behavioural therapy sessions or employee assistance programmes which provide individuals with direct access to specialists.
Some of the confidential support they receive may help employees to address the factors which are related to burnout.
Conscientious organisations should establish a menopause policy and workplace adjustments to safeguard their female employees from discrimination. Not only this but once a policy is implemented businesses must follow through on it. There’s no point in having a policy if no one knows it exists or where to go when they need support.
Business owners should be informed of any equality imbalances and how to eradicate these barriers and biases, which inhibit women from being acknowledged or promoted. Give support and mentoring to educate employees, at all levels, about unconscious biases. Ensure there is always company-wide awareness of self-promotion, so no one misses any potential opportunities. Salary transparency can be beneficial.
Managers are in the best position to recognise, prevent and address burnout, but senior leadership has an important role to play as well. By determining business norms, inspiring managers – regardless of gender – and recognising their efforts. These actions will help organisations achieve an elusive win-win: creating a more inclusive workplace, and empowering women at the same time.